How can you use a death and a birth to foster a new culture of decency around the dinner table? This and more when memory artist Nancy Gershman talks with Chicago-based writer, performer, and director J.W Basilo. A National and World Poetry Slam finalist, Basilo is also a PushCart Prize Nominee, and co-host of the Uptown Poetry Slam. His work has appeared on NPR, CBS, WGN and the Chicago Tribune. Catch him on http://BustedMouth.com and http://chicagoslamworks.com.
Start a tradition of decency when the Old Guard dies
“Humor, I feel like, is the obvious pressure release valve. But in my family there is joking and then there is joking. We have a long history of being awful to each other – passive-aggressive, really – because we don’t know how to relate to one another. Or we just don’t have the tools to express our emotions even if we wanted to. So we snipe at one another. There’s a whole lot of sitting around the table just taking each other apart, making it look like a joke.
We snipe and tell embarrassing stories over and over and over again, for the purpose of making the whole table laugh, while the victim feels awful about them self. If you get the whole table to laugh, you win. Maybe it’s a kind of pent up resentment that builds when we’re away from each other, but basically, humor is used as a weapon and a bandage in equal measure. So after my paternal grandmother Lucille died, I decided to try and put the breaks on it.
In Catholic-Italian families, Sunday dinner is a longstanding tradition, with 8-9 and upwards to 40 people on Easter, sitting at long tables (really card tables pretending to be regular tables). The tables start in the kitchen and extend into the living room.
The older generation has now pretty much died out so there’s a lot of kids now. Adult kids. Generally the dead are remembered really well through funny stories (because you don’t speak ill of the dead). Some of these dead Italians were stereotypical wife-beaters, but we’d prefer making jokes about drinking wine in the basement or whatever rather than get down to the place where we are real with each other … until a couple of months ago.
That’s when my niece was born, who’s the firstborn of the next generation. And it happened at the first family meal we sat down to since Grandma Lucille died. I had this conversation with my father and sister and brother-in-law. I was thinking: It’s sad being 31 years old but when I’m around my family, I feel like 7. So I said to them: “I don’t enjoy the way we talk to each other, to the kids or to others. From now on, I would like to start a tradition where we love and support one another. It’s something I’m really serious about.”
Most of my comedy, not surprisingly comes down to me through my father, both the positive and the negative. He introduced me to comedy. He’s the family jokester. But he’s also very quick to anger, anxious, passive-aggressive, and traditionally the first person to make a joke that rips the heart right out of your chest. Just kidding but you get the idea: he’s accosting you with veiled jokes.
So when I said to him that it’s really important we create a culture of fostering decency, he was dismissive in the moment, maybe because he looked at it as a cultural affront. I think he’s not proud of everything he did as a father.
So here I am having some terrific interactions, and our relationship is softening. Now that baby Emilia was born and he’s a grandfather, he’s the sweetest old bastard you’d ever want to be around. Like, we’re at the Cubs game and he says, “Hey, do you want to take a selfie?” He really wanted to bond with me! Or I’m making my way back to our seats, and I tripped or something, and started to say Sorry for – and he says to me: ‘No, you’re perfect, you really are.’
I was sitting at a ballpark thinking to myself: I’m not going to cry.”
New at the head of the table? Speak your mind
“It’s hard to be emotionally honest in my family. It’s hard connecting with one another. For example, we don’t really hug one another. The body language shows a lot of emotional disconnect. It’s very cursory, very A-frame: ass out with no great affection in it. As if we don’t like each other… or don’t want to admit it.
Anyway, I have one of those cool aunts who never had kids of her own but who took me to the movies. But as I’ve got older, she started to make a lot of sniping comments I couldn’t help but take personally. She’d do that consistently. She’d pinch my love handles and ask, ‘What’s this?’ Three times I’d literally grab her hand and remove it from my person. At one point I said to her, ‘That’s the 5th time you’ve made a comment about my appearance, and I’m done with it.’
I just reached an age where I started looking at my aunt and older relatives as fellow adults and saw how there was this running theme in my family– that everyone feels bad about how they look. So when my aunt said, ‘You’re a little testy,’ I said right back to her, ‘I’m a grown man. I have to draw boundaries somewhere. I can’t let anyone talk to me that way.’
It definitely felt weird but I decided to take it upon myself to use the timing to draw some new boundaries. My aunt was sitting at the head of the table, with me at the opposite end. For the first time I spoke up and said, ’We’re not going to talk to one another like this anymore.’”
Be truthful about the dead without crossing yourself
“I know it’s not an official rule that you not speak ill of the dead. But there are two non-verbal cues that Italian Catholics use around this saying. One is if someone is dead to you, or shamed you or the family, whenever someone says his name you have to spit on the floor. You don’t hock a ball of drooly spit; it’s more symbolic.
The other one is if someone speaks ill of the dead, they or someone else must cross themselves. I suppose it’s because a) if the dead are listening and b) if I’m not willing to have an honest conversation so we have this tic to take care of it. Even Grandma Lucille would say ‘We’ve a lot of bad people in our lineage.’ A lot of Old Country Italians, but family rarely talked about them. It’s not very pleasant to speak of. If we were actually being honest about how we treated one another, we might have spoken about those guys, and learned something. Those that don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. And if we’re not honest about ourselves, what are we doing?
In light of all this, the family is not The Family anymore. The tradition of midwestern Italian Catholics staying only within the bloodline is kind of dying off. There’s more marrying outside the family now. The tribal idea of the new immigrant is changing. We’re in a new age. Italians are white people now!
But I am at a point where I just can’t have people who are bad to me around me. I’ve seen a therapist and hang around liberal artists who have conversations all the time about personal safety, self-care, and their ‘true authentic self.’ Why not do better? Why not work on getting my relatives to say, ‘I really enjoy the sweater you’ve got on’ instead of ‘That’s a whole lot better than the usual shit you wear.’”
Complete the conversation before anyone’s dying, let alone dead
“Yeah, drawing boundaries is a lot like completing the conversation now before anyone’s on their deathbed. I don’t want my parents to die and feel like there are things that are still unresolved. They did their best to make me into a good adult, only with an added complex of shame and guilt and awfulness. Let’s face it: you carry your family around with you.
That’s the reason I went into comedy. And it’s such a comedian’s cliché, too. In my show, ‘No One Can Fix You’ there’s stuff about my parents in there. They walked out thinking, Okay, J.W., we learned some things.
Mental health has been a big challenge for me my entire life. My family viewed me as so negative and dramatic instead of recognizing that I’m depressed. It’s entirely possible that my brain chemistry was permanently altered by those Sunday dinners. But the truth is I’m pre-disposed to an anxiety disorder: my father and sisters have it, and my Dad’s father had it. Why admit there’s a psychological disorder in the family when you can just call it The Basilo Gene?”
The spirits of the dead can change the tone around the table
“Anyway, back to our most recent Sunday Dinner. There’s the new patriarch, my father, lifting his glass in the first toast without Grandma at the table. It was a little weird with officially, just the remaining two generations. Somebody said ‘Now we can curse because Grandma’s not here anymore.’ I don’t see it as she’s watching. But there was a definite feeling that the communication was different around the table. A sea change where we all started being more honest with one another. I was talking with others about the new baby, and I remember having the feeling, this is all new, we can begin again; address each other well; be honest; really listen and not sweep people’s issues under the rug. Not make people feel shame.
They talk to me like I’m a person now, not the kid that will screw things up.
So, yes, the death of an elder is an opportunity. I say let’s be the generation that does it correctly. I sensed it then maybe because I’m the Sensitive One. I’m also the Outspoken One. I’m the only one who has seen a therapist (also the only one to have the gall to bring up that I was seeing a therapist).
The concept of family I like is that you’re not obligated to take shit from anyone just because they’re your relatives. We create these roles so why not show this is how you deal with your sister, your grandmother, etc. We’re not a baseball team; we’re people first. If you choose to let family make you feel bad about yourself, it’s on you to defend yourself.”
The most annoying shticks become noble once you’re dead
“I’ve had a number of friends my age pass away and I tend to remember their jokes. I had a friend (10 years older than me) who was in a hospice in Austin TX. She was a real party girl – a videographer and writer. Gabrielle always had the good drugs. She was the big sister; that’s how she rolled. But she got liver cancer at 45. I remember actively pulling away from her at the time. It didn’t feel real. Part of that was because she behaved as if she wasn’t actively sick. I have a thing, but I’ll be fine.
A mutual friend hit me up and suggested we see her – now – before she dies. We went, and a bunch of her friends all took turns staying overnight with her. I played guitar but most of all, I remember laughing a lot. She was talking about the shit she’d do when she gets out of hospice. She’d say that kind of thing when she was having a good day, which definitely kept her from accepting that she was going to die.
The last thing I said to her was, ‘Hey, when you cross over, don’t watch me jerk off in the shower.’
Now, she wasn’t comedic herself. But if you had a good bit, she did this kind of cataloguing in her brain. She always knew the right time to bring up your joke again in public. I know it was an homage but it always felt at the time that that was my joke, so why are you doing it? It was annoying. If you had a good bit that you did while you were driving drunk one night, she’d be the one who’d remember the joke, years later and say, ‘Remember that thing you said…?’
Now I look back on this with a lot of fondness. I remember the exact number of times she made me laugh.”
Your To Do List
Ever find yourself recalling those not-so-funny shticks of dead relatives or old friends? The ones that were guaranteed to bring out the worst in you and everybody else as you groaned, sighed or booed, helpless to stop the performance? These were the routines you came to expect at Sunday dinner or holidays, whether you liked it or not. Over time it simply became tradition.
So why on earth should we strive to keep the old shticks alive? I believe there is a way to revive them in such a way that they no longer grate on us, and the secret is this. Teach the shticks to your children. Not to self-conscious teens or young adults, but to the little “hams” in the family between the ages of 5-10 who’d love to do a little bit for the grownups around the table.
By keeping your impersonators young, the kids will nail the material every time because they’ll put their peculiar spin on it (for example, like a princess). In this way, the bits will never get catty and cruel. Quite the opposite: they’ll feel fresh and new.